The peninsula of rolling farmland known as Prince Edward County is one of the most attractive parts of Ontario, home to organic wineries, quaint country inns, rising real estate prices and some of the finest beaches on the Great Lakes.
Naturally, everyone there hates each other.
This, at least, was the thesis of an editorial in the County Weekly News that drew a hate speech complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which dismissed the case this week because it has no jurisdiction over newspaper content.
Prince Edward County residents are bitterly split between “natives” and “imports,” the editorial said. Natives are the “true County resident[s],” who support green energy, and want to lease their land to wind turbine farms. Imports oppose wind turbines because they spoil the view, and see natives as “backwards hicks who don’t know better than to stand up for themselves.”
The average import, it said, is “a know-it-all city slicker moved to the bucolic shores of Prince Edward from Toronto or the 905, bringing along your urban sensibilities, baggage, gripes, niggles and attitudes…. Nothing a County native hates worse than an import telling them what to do or how to think.”
The unsigned editorial alleged a conspiracy of real estate agents is behind the local campaign against wind turbines, and it criticized the “import doctors who are using their newly minted county address to bolster their claim that the infernal wind machines will ruin your health, make your cat crazy, stop your cows from milking and flatten your soufflé.”
Prince Edward County is a key front in the clean energy war, with several proposed wind installations, and passions evidently run high. This week in the capital, Picton, scientists and advocates met for the first annual symposium on the human health effects of wind turbines.
Alan Whiteley, a lawyer in Picton who felt personally targeted by the editorial, although it did not name him, brought the hate speech complaint, saying he and other “immigrants to the County” were held up to “ridicule and contempt.” He also alleged the editorial amounted to a notice that letters to the editor from “imports” would not be published, and therefore constitutes discrimination based on place of origin in the provision of a service.
“Those who migrate within Ontario from a domestic place of origin are entitled to the same protection against discrimination as those who migrate into Ontario from an extra-provincial place or origin,” Mr. Whiteley wrote in submissions to the Tribunal. “Their mobility rights are guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as are their continuing rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
The County Weekly News, which is owned by the Quebecor media chain, stood by its editorial, and denied discrimination.
The case was never heard on its merits, however, because the Ontario Human Rights Commission – which used to act a gatekeeper for complaints to the Tribunal, but now only acts as an advocate and occasional intervenor – brought an application to dismiss the complaint as outside the jurisdiction of human rights law.
That application succeeded, and Mr. Whiteley’s complaint was dismissed in a decision dated Tuesday. Reached by phone on Thursday, Mr. Whiteley had not yet heard about the decision. Later, after reading it, he declined to comment.
These issues about how human rights law applies to newspapers are mostly settled in law. The Supreme Court of Canada decided in 1979 that newspaper content is not a “service” as defined in human rights law. But they continue to crop up and require clarification, most famously in 2008 when OHRC Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall dismissed a hate speech complaint against Maclean’s magazine by the Canadian Islamic Congress for similar reasons, but still criticized the magazine for Islamophobia.
In the case of the County Weekly News, the Commission argued, and the Tribunal agreed, that newspapers are not a “service” as defined in the Ontario Human Rights Code, which prohibits discrimination in the “provision of services.” It also said newspapers do not fall under the section of the code that prohibits discrimination via a “notice, sign, symbol, emblem or other similar representation,” which is generally thought to be aimed at signs such as “No Irish Need Apply.”
“As publication of opinion in the media is a matter at the core of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in a democratic society, any ambiguity should be resolved in favour of the exclusion of such matters from the [Ontario Human Rights] Code,” the Tribunal ruled.
In a final comment about Mr. Whiteley’s reference to an archetypal hate speech case – the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1990 decision about Holocaust denying Alberta teacher James Keegstra – to prove his point that there are limits on free expression, Tribunal chair David A. Wright said that the Keegstra decision “in no way suggests that general [human rights law] provisions should be interpreted in a manner that restricts free expressions of opinions by the media.”
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